CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday night to contest what they believe is Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s illegal declaration that his decisions are exempt from judicial oversight, marking the largest protests ever against the newly elected president.
It was not clear Tuesday night whether the chants of thousands calling for a second revolution would lead Morsi to rescind, modify or wait out opponents to his 5-day-old constitutional declaration. Instead, it appeared the crowds, notably absent of the Islamists who are Morsi’s base, simply reflected an increasingly polarized electorate. Indeed, many who were protesting Tuesday said they boycotted the election that led to Morsi’s presidency or voted for his rival.
If Morsi sticks to his declaration, the feud over who has the final say over the nation’s judicial matters will come to a head Sunday when the courts are expected to make three key rulings. The courts will determine whether Morsi acted legally when he changed the temporary constitution in July to end military rule – leading to the firing of Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council – and giving Morsi final say over military matters, the first time a civilian has had such power in Egypt’s modern history; whether the assembly charged with crafting a permanent constitution is legal, since it was elected by the now-defunct Parliament, which the courts earlier ruled was illegally constituted; and whether the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, should be dissolved.
If the courts rule against Morsi, it remains unclear whether Morsi’s decree or the judicial rulings would prevail – or who will decide that. In the meantime, several judges have suspended their work in protest.
Protesters charged Tuesday that Morsi only represents the interests of his base, his former party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the group largely responsible for Morsi’s narrow election victory. Opponents charge Morsi is trying to consolidate power on behalf of the Brotherhood. He was elected to represent all, they say, not just those who supported him.
Morsi’s declaration appeared to be a tipping point for an increasingly frustrated half of the country that wanted to see revolutionary change. Instead, critics say, much remains the same. Under the proposed permanent constitution, the military still controls an unchecked large segment of the economy and the government does not review the military’s budget, just as under the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, much sought after police reforms have yet to happen, and Morsi already gave himself legislative power after a court ruling found that Parliament had been wrongly elected.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that Morsi’s decree applied to sovereign matters and that the judiciary was on board. Hours later, the judiciary council issued a statement saying it was still protesting the declaration.
The size of the crowds Tuesday rivaled the celebrations of Morsi’s June election and the lifetime sentence handed down to Mubarak for the deaths of protesters during the 2011 revolution. But the crowds were far smaller, and less representative, than during the 2011 revolution, during which protesters camped out in Tahrir Square for 18 days. Many Tuesday came out carrying the flags of political parties that ran against Morsi.